Understanding Neurodiversity as part of Autism Acceptance
As an autistic person, I see myself as part of the disability community, the autistic community and the neurodivergent community. Most people are aware of autism and I have previously spoken at length about why we need to move beyond autism awareness. But very few have heard about the umbrella term “neurodivergent”.
“Neurodivergent” is a label adopted by many members of the disability community. It encompasses all those whose brains do not conform to societal norms. This includes people with autism, ADHD, learning disabilities (such as dyslexia), and other conditions. Neurotypical describes people whose brains are considered “standard” by society.
Building off the distinctions above is neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is the concept that all brain types, whether neurodivergent or neurotypical, are natural, valuable, and worthy. Neurodivergent brains are a reflection of the diversity of humanity, not something to be eradicated. Recognizing neurodiversity may involve changing your mindset toward autistic and disabled people but is a crucial piece in giving neurodivergent people the respect that they deserve.
Neurodiversity, as seen by its etymology of “neuro” meaning “brain”, and diversity, describes the neurological diversity present within humanity. Judy Singer, an autistic sociologist, coined the term in 1988 as a way to describe the hidden category of people who may see, feel, touch, hear, smell, and sort information in ways different than the typical expectation. Unlike many words and diagnoses used to define neurodivergent people, neurodiversity is inclusive and neutral. In its simplicity, it welcomes everyone as a whole, unbroken reflections of natural human variation.
I want to be clear that recognizing neurodiversity is not meant to minimize the very real challenges that neurodivergent people face due to their neurodivergence. Neurodivergent people can experience challenges in regard to friendships, academia, employment, living skills and other areas. I could write an article about the history of discrimination, misunderstandings, lack of proper support, and possible accommodations for each of these areas, but that is for another time. Neurodiversity, however, acknowledges that some of these problems are not inherent to the neurodivergence itself, but often rather a reflection on society’s unwillingness to accommodate for such differences.
Neurodivergent people think, learn, process, and /or interpret differently than neurotypical people, and sometimes need extra support doing so. People looking to support neurodivergent people should first check whether that person is looking for assistance in that area. Like other people with disabilities, neurodivergent people might have different goals and possibly different ways in which they aim to achieve those goals. It is important to focus on supporting the person rather than fixing them. Supporting looks like doing things for or with the person on their terms, to make life easier for them. Fixing, on the other hand, looks like modifying behavior or teaching skills that would make life easier for others or the rest of society, without consideration from the neurodivergent person. Regardless of the support a person needs, they are a human being as worthy of autonomy as anyone else. Recognizing neurodiversity means recognizing everyone’s personhood and seeking to support them in their endeavors rather than trying to fix their neurodivergence.
When neurodiversity is recognized in a space, neurodivergent people have the opportunity to be themselves. People who identify as neurodivergent often have similar experiences with not fitting in, interesting quirks, discrimination, and communication styles that transcend individual labels of autism, ADHD, learning disabilities and other related conditions. Within the neurodivergent umbrella, people bond over growing up feeling “different” than peers, making sense of confusing interactions with neurotypical people, or helping each other problem-solve and self-accommodate. The neurodivergent community is rich with ideas, history, collaboration, and creativity.
In 1999, Singer wrote, “the ‘Neurologically Different’ represent a new addition to the familiar political categories of class/gender/race and will augment the insights of the social model of disability.” Just as we ought to recognize and appreciate the diversity of people’s experiences with genders, races, and class, we too must recognize and appreciate neurodiversity as a political category in its own regard. If the first step towards autism inclusion is acceptance, then the second step is recognizing and celebrating the neurodiversity of the world.
Julian Laferrera is a senior at Mount Holyoke College where they are studying mathematics education and philosophy. As a Peer Fellow with the college’s AccessAbility Office, they mentor and support other disabled students.
Julian is deeply involved in the Autistic community. Having spent the last eight years learning ASL, including a semester away at Gallaudet University for the Deaf, they plan on getting a Masters in Deaf Education soon.
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